Commentary on Mark 1:1-8
There is probably not a better text for the second Sunday of Advent than Gospel of Mark’s version of the John the Baptist story
It is not because Mark’s take on the story is necessarily better than the others, but because Mark’s way of telling it is so thoroughly apocalyptic in nature. Other gospels may want to start with hoary genealogies or charming birth narratives before they get to John by the Jordan, but not Mark. Mark’s Gospel jumps right into the Jordan with John once the purpose of his writing has been announced in verse 1: the gospel of Jesus Christ (Son of God) — that is, Advent-appropriate apocalyptic good news.
I realize that we may not normally think of the word gospel as apocalyptically charged, but Mark helps make it so. Joel Marcus points out that the word for gospel itself comes down, like a lot of the motifs in our Advent 2 pericope, from Second and Third Isaiah, which also includes “making a way,” the wilderness, and in Mark 1:9-11 the ripped open heaven of Isaiah 64:1 at Jesus’ baptism.1 Biblical scholar Eugene Boring points out, furthermore, that the word gospel in a Hellenistic context can mean good news “from the battlefield.”2 To be sure, the gospel in our pericope is not about the chirpiness of hallmark cards; it is rather good news from the place of struggle — for Mark struggled with Satan and the Roman Empire.
I like to point out that our Advent 2 text actually represents half of a Markan prologue that sets the scene for the narration of Jesus and his disciples that begins in earnest in 1:16. Before then, the “gospel” is equated with “Jesus Christ” in 1:1 and by the end of the prologue is called the “gospel of God,” that is, the good news of God’s reign in 1:14-15.3 Our pericope is thus the first half of the fifteen-verse set up for Mark’s forthcoming, gospel-focused narrative of Jesus. And as we know from Mark’s sixteen-chapter unfolding story of exorcisms, “binding the strongman,” demon-thwarting miracles, eschatological feedings, and the sun-darkened crucifixion in Mark 15:33 this Jesus narrative is one of apocalyptic struggle from beginning to end.
In light of this apocalyptic tone, it is helpful to note one other structural feature of Mark 1:1-15 that helps to shape our more limited Advent 2 pericope in 1:1-8. As Boring has noted, the story of John the Baptist and the story of Jesus have certain parallel features, even if John and Jesus are not parallel figures:4 both are in the wilderness (1:4/1:12) and both are in the proclaiming business (1:7-8/1:14-15). To my mind, this structural similarity sets up the unique anticipation and fulfillment of Jesus’ coming and roots it narratively in what can be called a kind of “situational irony.”
John announces that one is coming who is more powerful and that he (John) is not even worthy to untie his sandals. And yet, beyond our pericope, when Jesus “comes,” John the Baptist actually baptizes Jesus! The structural relationship with John is parallel, but apocalyptically reversed. Though Jesus is “stronger,” John’s unworthiness is taken up into the strange paradox that is the good news of Jesus Christ.
All of these things help make sense of the traditional exegetical issues that occupy interpreters of Mark 1:1-8. Although Mark announces that Isaiah is the source of the quote in 1:2, it is in fact a conflation of Isaiah 40, Exodus 23:20, and Malachi 3:1. John’s appearance, of course, is reminiscent of Hebrew Bible prophets and plays on ancient types, like Elijah. Still, the key to 1:1-8 remains the strange parallel yet asymmetrical relationship between John and Jesus. John expects a “stronger” one to come; his relationship to Jesus is subordinate because Jesus baptizes with Spirit. And yet in this apocalyptic narrative, anything goes. The unworthy one ends up doing the baptizing (1:9).
In fairness, however, the text actually ends with a feint: the Holy Spirit in verse 8 is not yet present, but promised. Yet even this foretaste squares with our apocalyptic Markan narrative. The Spirit is the coming sign of the new age, an eschatological harbinger, and will be the driving force behind the Messiah’s reign-of-God ministry. This promised Spirit is for prying open an otherwise closed present. So when the Messiah comes, his baptism will not be about preparation, but empowerment for ministry, for setting the disciples on the way.
Preachers might be wise to think of this second Sunday of Advent as good news in the midst of the struggle. Sometimes our Advent talk ends up being a little moralistic when we read John the Baptist exclusively through the eyes of repentance and moral rectitude, as if the narrative were starting out from a point of equilibrium. With the good news of Jesus Christ, God has already entered the struggle. He is himself “gospel,” good news from the front, as it were. The words of Second Isaiah help us to perceive the voice that commands that we prepare a way in the desert/wilderness. But the way is not ours. The way is the Lord’s. And that’s good news for the struggle.
1. Joel Marcus, Mark 1-8 (Anchor Bible; New York: Doubleday, 2000), 139-40.
2. Eugene Boring, Mark: A Commentary (New Testament Library; Louisville: WJKP, 2006), 30.
3. David Schnasa Jacobsen, Mark (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2014), 23-26.
4. Boring., Mark, 38.